I can still remember when I decided to get my MBA. I was working as a Business Analyst (essentially designing screens and software) for a Fortune 500 company, having gone from community college to a four year school and graduating with high honors some years before. Although I was working in a relatively low-level job, I was extremely interested in the broader scope of business strategy. I would spend my spare time reading the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review, and books about running a business. Over the course of a few years, I decided that I wanted to go back to school and get an MBA so I could learn more about the broader concepts of running a business (marketing, finance, IT, strategy, etc.).
So I signed up to take the GMAT, rolled out of bed that morning thinking I should probably skip it because I hadn’t had time to study, and ended up scoring a 660 with a perfect score in the writing portion. For those that aren’t familiar with the scoring, a 660 puts you in the top 25% of test takers. Had I actually studied for the thing, I probably could have broken the 700 barrier without an issue. It had been a few years since I had done math, and I was rusty on that part. But I scored in the 92/93 percentile in verbal, and with that perfect score, could have been on my way to a top MBA program in no time.
I wasn’t aiming for a top program though. You see, I had my oldest son just two months after I finished my undergrad. I also had my second son before I took the GMAT. So I was supporting two kids, and although my husband did work full time back then, there was no way I could stop working for two years and move to a top school. I had responsibilities, and did not make anywhere near enough to save for a top school. So instead, I set my sights on the top public school in my state and pursued reimbursement from my employer. I had used the same strategy to graduate from undergrad entirely debt free, while paying for it all myself. The in-state program is well ranked, but not outstanding, currently sitting at #68 in US News and World Report’s top business schools. So I set my sights there.
Times Were Tough
I signed up for my in-state flagship university’s part-time MBA program, and was quickly accepted – because my score was higher than their average, my grades were good, and I’d had steady work in IT since graduating. I found myself going to class nights, weekends, and summers for several years. Given that I was going part-time, it took about four years to finish. I started the MBA back in 2009 and finished in 2013 (four years ago now).
I can tell you that it was NOT EASY. During those four years:
- My two-year old son started kindergarten, and my five year old kindergartner became a fourth grader
- My husband lost his job in the Great Recession, when his factory closed only three months after I started the MBA program. He wouldn’t be able to find work again until 2014
- Given the job loss, my cash on hand dwindled quickly. I needed to take out student loans to pay for class – and pay them with the reimbursement on the back end from my company
- I switched companies in 2011, from one Fortunate 500 to another, stronger one
- My job responsibilities increased hugely, and my hours at work changed from 6 AM – 3 PM to a more traditional 8-5 PM
- My husband almost died of septic shock in 2012, leading to an insane time trying to juggle work, school, kids, and his rehabilitation
- He was away from home for a month – at first in the hospital “recovering” from a surgery, then in the ICU in a coma on a ventilator in septic shock, then back to the hospital floor once he came out of the coma, and last at a rehabilitation center regaining his strength and getting 24/7 nursing care
- Once he came home, there were tons of doctors appointments (surgeon, doctor, physical therapists), visiting nurses, setbacks, more surgeries – so much to deal with
Through it all, I kept persevering in my ultimate goal. It would have been much easier to just give up and stop going to school during any of these difficult times. I saw many fellow students who started out the program with me who just never finished. They found it too difficult to go to school, and juggle all the other responsibilities of their lives. I would bet a lot of money that 90% of those that dropped out faced nothing nearly as challenging as I did. I didn’t give up, though. Even when it seemed impossible, I kept going. Eventually all that hard work paid off, and I finished.
By the time I graduated, I was burnt out on school and needed a break. I didn’t pick up a business book or magazine for a few years afterward. I focused on my family, myself, and my job – I think I’d earned a break after going through all of that. But the important part was I HAD FINISHED and achieved my goal. Me, the person who had to put themselves through community college as a teenager, and had so many challenges to overcome, was granted an MBA from a great university.
A Technology and International MBA Focus
Part of what I liked about this MBA program was that they offered several international study opportunities. Growing up, my family had never left the east coast of the US – the biggest trip I’d ever taken was for my honeymoon to Japan (nine days after 9/11, which was not the best time to take your first international trip). Also, I never had the chance to study abroad . One of the disadvantages to funding your education yourself through work reimbursements is that you can’t just take off out of the country for a few months. Studying abroad was one of those things I’d read about online and in books, and I really wanted to try it.
At the time I started the MBA, I hadn’t seen a practical way to study abroad – again, I couldn’t take off for months at a time. I had responsibilities at home, and at work. I was getting reimbursed for my classes from my employer, and that meant I couldn’t miss work for more than a week or two at a time. Fortunately, this part-time MBA program had the perfect international offerings.
Given that their students were part-time, almost all of my fellow students were in a similar boat to me. They had work and school, and couldn’t take off for a summer to study in Italy. So the college had developed several international programs that consisted of 10 day and 2 week study abroad opportunities. The upside (if you can call it that) to my husband losing his job was that we had a full-time caregiver for the kids. So after talking with him about the opportunity, I took advantage of it in 2010 and again in 2011 – studying abroad in Lyon, France and later in China.
EM Lyon business school, the school where I studied in France, along with our visits to Renault truck factory and a vineyard
From upper left – a Chinese business school in Jinan where we spent a few days, a factory in China, Sinotruck (a Chinese state-owned truck factory), GE Medical Systems, and Nokia.
What About That Chinese Walmart?
During the trip to China, we had the opportunity one evening to visit a Chinese Walmart. Now Walmart in China is in some ways similar to the US, and in other ways nothing like it. For example, there’s a section where you can pick up live animals for dinner, just downstairs from the toys and clothes.
A lot of my classmates found this odd/strange, but I thought it was an interesting look into the culture. After all, in China the “cold chain” (that thing that ensures refrigerated food stays cold all through its life) is spotty at best. So what better way to ensure your food is healthy, accurately described, and fresh than to pick it up alive? That Walmart also had cases of refrigerated, butchered meat, which was a big change from what we saw in a different city in a local market.
Studying abroad, and having the opportunity to even go to something like a Chinese Walmart, was a dream come true for me. I was the only woman on these trips with young kids. Most of the MBA students were my age, but were either men with young kids, or were single. The only other two women with kids had kids that were adults, and were going back to school. So I felt somewhat out of place, but still developed good friendships with my fellow students on the trip.
To this day, I’m glad that I didn’t let all those obstacles I encountered along the way derail me from reaching for -and achieving – my goals.
Have you every completed a big, audacious goal despite huge obstacles? Do you love international travel too? Let me know in the comments.